My patients can wait. I don’t know how long it will be before I can write about another game like this one.
Now that we’re six weeks into the season, I’ve got a routine down with my kids, whereby I finish storytime with the older two and put them to bed by 9 o’clock, which usually affords me the opportunity to watch the last two or three innings of each game in peace. Last night my work wasn’t done until , and the game was zipping by at an unusually fast pace (thanks in part to the Royals’ free-swinging ways against Cliff Lee), so by the time I was able to free myself from fatherly duties, it was the middle of the ninth. The score was 5-2, and if anything I was almost grateful that the margin of victory was large enough that some of the ridiculous baserunning (Mark Teahen trying to advance from second to third on a flyball to shallow center field) and fielding (allowing a runner to score from first on a single; allowing a foul popfly to fall between three defenders) plays would not have single-handedly cost the Royals the game.
Instead, I saw the Royals squeeze the life out of Cleveland in seven easy steps.
Step 1: Kerry Wood emerges to pitch the ninth.
I would stop short of saying this decision was a mistake on Eric Wedge’s part. Cliff Lee had thrown eight brilliant innings, and had only thrown 101 pitches. Two of the first three hitters for the Royals in the ninth were left-handers. If we’ve reached the point where a 30-year-old starter can’t pitch the ninth inning because he’s thrown 101 pitches, then the pitch count revolution has gone too far.
But from the Indians’ standpoint, I wouldn’t fault Wedge, because this move struck me as being as much about trying to win future games as about trying to win this one. The Indians’ bullpen has been a nightmare, but Kerry Wood has been somewhat less offensive than his brethren. He had a 5.84 ERA coming into the game, but had blown only one save, and had struck out 18 batters in 12.1 innings. Wood had a terrific season as the Cubs’ closer last year, and the Indians desperately needed him to settle down so they could work on fixing the rest of their pen. If the Indians had been leading by one run, I think that leaving Lee in would have been the right move. But a three-run lead ought to be safe enough that Wedge was within his rights to make a move that would help the Indians down the road as well.
But as a Royals fan, well, I was happy to see the change made.
Step 2: Mike Jacobs goes yard.
Alright, I want to see a show of hands: after Jacobs finished off a brilliant nine-pitch at-bat, including three consecutive full-count foul balls, with a laser to right-center field, how many of you were whining about Jacobs, “of course he hits a solo home run with the Royals down by three runs in the ninth!” Come on, you know you were thinking it. Last week, he hit homers in back-to-back games in
That’s just the nature of the beast when you’re dealing with an all-or-nothing hitter: some of their biggest hits come in the smallest situations. Jacobs has also homered with the Royals up 9-0, and with the Royals up 3-0. But he hit a game-tying two-run homer in Arlington in April – the game that Soria came down with AITP – and he hit a huge three-run homer against Chicago with the White Sox winning 5-1 in the fourth, a game the Royals would win in extra innings. Last Friday he homered on behalf of Zack Greinke in a 2-1 game, and the Royals went on to break their six-game losing streak.
Anyway, that’s what Jacobs does: he hits home runs. It wasn’t his fault that the circumstances of the ninth inning were such that the #5 hitter had to start a three-run rally. Sam Mellinger wrote about this already, but what made this rally work was that the Royals have such a deep lineup that they were able to score three runs with their 5-6-7-8-9 hitters. Teahen, who was batting third not long ago, now fits in as a very nice #6 hitter. DeJesus, who granted has been struggling, is massively overqualified to bat 8th. Last night was a nice reminder of why it’s always nice to have nine major league hitters in your lineup.
And while Jacobs homer last night was no more valuable than a walk, it was certainly more meaningful. He made Kerry Wood look mortal. He brought the crowd to its feet. He set the tone for what would come next.
Step 3: Mark Teahen goes yard.
The Royals’ broadcast had barely come out of replay to show Teahen hacking away at Wood’s first pitch. Chalk this up as another event that would never have happened in the past: in the past, when the Royals hit a home run and the next batter swung at the first pitch, he invariably killed the momentum with a one-pitch out. Instead, Teahen goes with the pitch for another opposite-field home run. Is it just me, or is Mark Teahen and Kevin Seitzer a match made in heaven?
Step 4: Miguel Olivo doesn’t go yard – because he doesn’t try to go yard.
A lot of people are saying that Olivo’s walk was the turning point of the inning, and I don’t disagree. But as cool as it was to see, I disagree that the key to the at-bat was Olivo’s decision to take a 3-1 pitch for possibly the first time in his life. Rather, I think the key was the very first pitch.
Consider the situation: Jacobs and Teahen have just gone back-to-back to bring the Royals within a run. The Kougar/K2 is rocking. Another homer ties the game – and homers are pretty much all Olivo is good for. In that situation, with that much emotion, ou know he’s going to be trying to tie the game on the first pitch, no matter what or where it is. What’s more, everyone knows that – including the opposing pitcher. This was the baseball equivalent of Groundhog Day, where you knew everything that was going to happen ahead of time: Wood would throw a slider, Olivo would swing and miss by about two feet, and he’d be down 0-1.
And that’s what happened. Wood threw a slider. Olivo started to swing –
– and checked in time.
And that, my friends, was when I started to believe that we would win. Olivo would foul off the next pitch, but then took three straight pitches. Kerry Wood was melting down on the mound, and Olivo was content to let him do so on his own.
And that’s when it hit me: the Indians are the Royals! The Royals are the…whoever was playing the Royals!
I’ve seen this movie before many, many times – but never quite from this seat. In a pre-Soria, pre-Dayton world, it was the Royals who were blowing a three-run lead on the road in the bottom of the ninth. And had this been one of those games, the minute Ricky Bottalico or Roberto Hernandez or Mike MacDougal had surrendered back-to-back homers, then walked the next hitter, you might as well have turned off the TV right there – because even though they still had the lead, there was no way the Royals were going to win the game.
Only this time, you couldn’t pull me away from the TV with wild horses, because there was no way the Royals would lose this time. Was there?
Step 5: Mitch Maier pinch-runs for Olivo.
In the moment, it seemed to me that if you’re going to use Maier for Olivo regardless, why not use him to pinch-hit, given that you gain the platoon advantage – and Olivo is terrible against right-handers – while also gaining the OBP? That seems almost petty now. Olivo is fast for a catcher, but Maier is fast, period. I was just worried that Hillman would gamble with a stolen-base attempt. The way Wood was pitching, there was no reason to risk giving away an out. Hillman wisely decided not to.
Step 6: David DeJesus triples.
When DeJesus came to the plate, Ryan Lefebvre made sure to tell us that the last time these two had faced, DeJesus had hit a two-run homer – unfortunately, in that game the Indians still held a two-run lead at the time. Meanwhile, I was thinking of a different two-run homer.
Either one works. DeJesus took a fastball down and in, then Wood’s second pitch missed the target low-and-away in favor of right-down-Broadway. Maier scores, DeJesus winds up at third, and the Royals don’t need a hit to win the game.
Step 7: The Spork Becomes...The Spark!
I’m trying to hold onto my hatred of Willie Bloomquist, but man, he’s making it difficult. First came the perfectly-executed hit-and-run that set up the winning run against the White Sox in the 11th inning, the kind of play that makes crusty old scouts weep with pride. Then last night, with the Royals needing only a deep fly ball to win the game…Bloomquist hits a deep fly ball to win the game. Bloomquist isn’t a great player, but he may be that rare player with great fundamentals even without great talent. I know this much: David Howard doesn’t hit that ball far enough to score DeJesus. I’m not sure Howard hit an opposite-field fly ball that far in his entire career.
Seven steps to the greatest Royals comeback since Opening Day, 2004, a game which still lives fondly in our memories even though it was followed by 104 losses. That game is known simply as the Mendy Lopez Game, but this comeback had so many heroes and key moments that I’m not sure how it will be remembered. The Miguel Olivo Walked On Five Pitches Game? The George Brett Rallied The Troops Game? Or maybe, just maybe, the Game That Buried Cleveland. Call it payback for Chip Ambres.
I do know that this was yet another GWWNHWITP, our second in a row and our sixth of the season.
Finally, I can’t talk about the ninth inning without talking about the crowd. Pretty much from the moment Jacobs made contact, the crowd was as much a factor in the comeback as anything else. It was loud, boisterous, and into every pitch. I’ve read some comparisons between this game and the Ken Harvey Game, when
No question, some of this is the new(ish) ballpark. Which is as it should be; you spend a quarter billion dollars on a renovation, you expect the people to turn out to see it. But some of this is the new team. And I only expect those crowds to swell as the weather warms up, and school lets out, and the Royals stay in the chase. Who knows? Maybe another large crowd will get to witness – and do their part to help – another ninth-inning comeback later this year.